Naming of Jesus

1 January 2017

Numbers 6.22-27; Gal 4.4-7; Luke 2.15-21

Driving around the country to Ministry Division meetings is not inherently pleasurable but it sometimes brings unexpected benefits, usually courtesy of Radio 4. So it was that on one occasion recently I heard the following tale. In a clearing in the Australian bush a young koala was carefully climbing a eucalyptus tree. A good way up, he gingerly edged his way out on to a perpendicular branch. There he paused, gathered himself together, shut his eyes, spread his arms and jumped. Inevitably, the ground met him rather sooner and harder than he had hoped. Dazed, he stumbled away to recover. A few moments later he was climbing the tree again. So it went on, – three, four times. On a neighbouring tree sat two birds. After the fourth attempt, one said to the other, “Do you think it’s time to tell him he’s adopted?”

Views of adoption have changed radically in the last half century or so – in large part as a consequence of our increasing ability to distance birth from conception – so that there is now significantly less perceived difference between an adopted child and, say, a child born by IVF. Yet the koala reminds us that there is still something about genetics: he doesn’t share his parents DNA and he doesn’t have a natural ability to fly. Thus we come to the heart of this feast: on the one hand, we don’t share the DNA of our true parent, God – indeed, God does not have DNA; on the other hand, Jesus clearly does have DNA but is the true and only Son of the Father, full of grace and truth.

It is this Jesus, the Son who shares our human constitution, whom we see being grated into the fabric of human society. He is not marked out as different but, rather, as like all others. In accordance with Jewish law and custom he is named and circumcised. The rites may, at one moment, seem awesome and deep; at another, arbitrary and meaningless – but they are performed ‘in accordance with the law.’ As far as it goes, the attempt to enfold Jesus into the life of the world is sufficient: we are in little doubt but that he shares our lot, he is one of us.

However, that is not enough. Just as Austin Farrer observed that shepherds do not serve the sheep by going down on all fours to identify with them, so Jesus does not become the Saviour by identifying with us. He is the Saviour because that is the divine purpose. He becomes one with us in order that we might become one with him. This is wholly beyond the scope of Jewish expectation of a Saviour; wholly beyond the hopes of the systemically disadvantaged black and Asian youth in our urban areas and, for much of the time, beyond our own hopes and imaginings. It is all too easy to become obsessed with being human and seeing Jesus as a means to being a slightly better human, or as a comfort in the trials of being human. This feast, then, is not so much the celebration of Jesus’ identity with us. Rather, it is the moment of wonder as we realise the audacity of the ‘plan hidden from the foundation of the world’ in which the Father, who has loved us from the beginning, takes this most radical step. We begin to see that it is not we who are human – we are mortals, destined to die – but Jesus who is truly human, with a life that does not end in death but, instead, in death God opens a door to eternal life: ‘God raised him up from the dead and gave him glory’.

So we come back to the koala. He finds himself the child of parents with gifts and abilities which he lacks. We find ourselves the Brother of this Jesus who, as St Proclus had it yesterday, “is adored by angels on high and eats with tax collectors here below”, the one who “lies in the arms of his mother, yet also walks on the wings of the wind”. This speaks to us not so much of exciting possibility as of utter difference and unfathomable distance. Paul, writing to the Galatians, uses the image of adoption – but we are not persuaded. The image of the young koala is too powerful: we know that we do not possess what is needed for us to be truly Brothers and Sisters of the incarnate Lord. It is just this possibility that the miracle of Incarnation addresses; just this new reality that this feast celebrates, for God offers not just adoption but the enfolding in grace. Here, once again, we are indebted to Thomas Cranmer for the richness of the Christmas collect – ‘we, who have been born again and made your children by adoption and grace…’

Grace can never be counterfeited. God alone is the source of grace; grace is God’s own being present to transform, support, lead – and we are, finally, called to be children of the one heavenly Father not by genetic modification but by grace. The koala’s adopted parents face a difficult moment: not only must the koala accept a radical difference from his parents which nothing can overcome but he must also accept that he will never be able to fly – except in an aeroplane, or with a hang-glider. We, on the other hand, are invited to step off the branch and find ourselves walking on the wings of the wind.

This incomparable gift seems beyond our powers even to communicate, let alone grasp. Yet God has already anticipated our stammering, faltering difficulties: in the so-called Aaronic blessing God gives us a pointer and a reminder that renews our faith and our hope. More importantly, it gives us a way of declaring to others something of the mystery made known to us in Jesus: “The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you; the Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace”.